What is “cupping” & is there an advantage for swimming?

The Olympics has brought swimming back into the forefront of sports media. And with it has come a plethora of questions about the circular bruises on Michael Phelps’ back. These perfectly circular bruises are not injuries or anything troublesome. In fact, those bruises are the result of a therapeutic technique called “cupping.”

What is Cupping?

This therapy is not just used by swimmers, but by other elite athletes as well as non-athletes. cuppingCupping is used to manage pain and soreness in the muscles. The technique is not often seen in Western media, simply because it originated in ancient China and is considered an alternative form of therapy. It is favored by elite athletes because relief is felt quickly and it requires no medication.

Small jars, usually made of glass, are heated from the inside with a small flame. The flame extinguishes before it can touch the skin and the glass develops a strong suction on the skin. Oil is placed on the skin to keep it supple during the therapy. The cups are kept in place or moved around the skin, usually for a minimum of five minutes.


Why Do Swimmers Use It?

Cupping is also known as myofascial decompression. It is often used when swimmers have issues with their latissimus dorsi and teres major, especially when they are freestyle swimmers. Cupping provides a release between the cupping-2muscle and the fascia, so swimmers can lengthen their strokes and speed up their times. During the therapy, swimmers might be asked to gently replicate their strokes to help the fascia release. In most cases, cupping does make a difference in performance.

Along with helping to release fascia and muscle tension, cupping can also be used as a form of relaxation. In this case, cups are placed along the body’s meridian lines. It can help relax the back to relieve soreness and it can also be used to help with emotions and psychological health. It is difficult to think of an uncomfortable therapy actually being relaxing, but cupping, done the right way can be incredibly relaxing despite the discomfort.


How Does Cupping Help Swimmers?

Olympic athletes, like Michael Phelps, appreciate the benefits of cupping. Lactic acid can build up after intense races and practices. The cupping can help speed up detoxification in the muscles. It can also relax muscles that are spasming. Inflammation is also decreased with cupping. Even swimmers who are not potential Olympians can benefit from cupping since it increases circulation and drainage in the lymph nodes.


What Precautions Should You Know?

Cupping does have benefits that make it popular with athletes and people who are interested in alternatives to Western medicine. But, there are some cautions that come with it. The cup marks can last up to a week. Since the cups open up the pores, it is recommended to avoid moving in and out of extreme temperatures. Pregnant women should not have cupping performed on the low belly and back. It is also not recommended for people who are taking blood thinning medication or if they have sensitive or damaged skin.

For people who are healthy enough for cupping, the benefits are extraordinary. The relaxation response is like no other. Cupping increases oxygenation, which relieves pressure in the muscles. The

cupping-3detoxification effects are noticeable – up to four inches deep into the tissues. Range of motion increases as circulation increases to break up any scar tissue and adhesions where injuries have happened.


Cupping is available for people all over the world. It should be performed by a therapist who has been trained. It is also recommended to speak with your doctor before you decide whether or not to try cupping and if it is an appropriate treatment for your physical conditions.